How to check a horse for lameness

An effective method to do an overall lameness check on a horse is by
observation, palpation and evaluation while in motion.


Observe the proportion between left and right legs and feet, between the
medial and lateral of a normally symmetrical structure.   Once asymmetry
is found, is it caused by swelling or reduction in tissue mass?  Also
monitor the horse at a stance.


Palpation by feeling for heat, pain, changes in tone or texture of a
tissue and swelling which could be characterize as hard, firm, soft, fluid
filled.  Also by using the thumb and middle finger to feel behind and on
either side of the lower fetlock just above the sesamoid area, one may
become aware of an increased or pounding pulse in the injured leg.
Increased pulses frequently generate useful information about infections
or inflammation fetlock or surrounding areas.


Evaluate the horse’s gait on a level even surface, led out at a walk and
also at a trot, in a straight line and in a circle.  Make sure the horse
is on a loose lead, not to interfere with the head movement. Watch the
horse led away and back.  Furthermore evaluate the horse in both
directions on the circle.   It’s important to view the horse move from the
side, in front, and the rear on different surfaces (e.g. hard and soft


Therefore to check equine lameness starting at the foot one must observe
the symmetry of the hooves and integrity of the hooves’ wall for any
cracks and bulges.  Whether the horse is holding, pointing or carrying the
foot.  Pick up the hooves to check the sole for defects, foreign objects,
abscess, discharge, discoloration, or foul smell.  Check the shoes and
nails for any misplacement, shoes pressing onto the sole and / or frog,
nails that may be driven too tight and / or too high / deep into the hoof.
Feel the coronary band for pain, swellings, and depressions, thumb press
the heel bulbs and sole plus check digital pulses at fetlock or pastern.
Tap lightly on the hoof wall and / or use a hoof tester for any reaction.
Meanwhile to check a horse for lameness due to joints, bones, tendons,
ligaments and muscles problems, one must give a thorough observation to
swelling, heat, pain, instability, raptures, gashes, degeneration from the
coronary band upwards.  Flexing and extending the joints may also reveal
lameness problem. Joint flexion tests while checking for pain will make
the horse counter reaction, start weight shifting, and flinches or perform
irregular movement.


Then evaluate and interpreting the findings. The pain response effect must
be repeatable to be valid.  When returning to the sensitive suspect area
there should be the same or even greater response effect to palpation or
manipulation each time.   The pain response may be subtle; the horse may
tense up, turn his head to the tested side or try to pull away. If the
horse’s reaction is remarkable, than most probably the pain is
significant.  Assuming the opposite leg is normal, it may be used for
comparison if unsure that the findings are significant.


Additionally, to tell if a horse is lames from the front or hind it’s
essential to notice which leg is favoured.  The injured leg / foot will be
favoured by placing the weight on the sound leg / foot.


Front limb lameness = If the horse is lame on a front limb, the horse will
dip its head up and down. To determine which limb is injured watch
carefully and notice when the head is up. The horse will raise its head
once the injured limb hit the ground. Then the horse will dip its head
down as the sound leg hits the ground.


Hind limb lameness = If the lameness is on the hind limb, the horse will
keep the hip of the injured limb slightly higher, to prevent weight
bearing so that the strong limb will support more weight.  The toe on the
lame leg may be dragged and the stride of the lame leg may be shortened.
Lame on both front or both hind limbs  = If a horse is lame from both
front or hind limbs  there will be no head nodding (bob up & down),
withers or hip rising. The horse will be reluctant to move and the strides
will be choppy and short.